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Creative Process: Never Concede

I think this is a corollary of "never say never", at least when you're worldbuilding.

Let me explain. A little background first, as to what I thought I had conceded and why. I’m not exactly good at learning languages. The structure—that’s fascinating. So much of linguistics is. But over and over I’d get an A on the first test (all grammar and logical structures), a B when they started to make me add vocabulary, and then have to fight hard for a C from there on out. And the fight was harder and harder the more vocabulary was I was supposed to already have stuck in my brain.

I don’t get it. I mean, I know all this English vocabulary that hardly anyone else ever uses. And I have no trouble adding to my English vocabulary, including long foreign-sounding stuff like medical terminology. But Spanish or Italian or Latin or Egyptian Hieroglyphics—-in every single one I fought to keep enough vocabulary for the tests. Too soon, afterward, most of it vanished, like someone trained a Star Trek phaser on it. Poof!

It’s frustrating, but what can I do? I remain fascinated by linguistics, by how words shape our thoughts, our emotions, our actions; about things like the difference between mass nouns and number nouns and the difference between how the brain processes poetry/songs and prose.

The idea of created languages is just so cool! But, I conceded, it's probably not something I should wrack my brain trying to create or keep track of.

So, instead, I came up with this cool idea: a world where people have different forms, where humans have been adapted to different ecosystems. Windborns who can fly; lakeborns and seaborns who can breathe water; sandborns adapted to the desert; rockborns adapted to deep caves, woodborns for the forests, and so on.

And I start writing. It's obvious that windborns will want to fly together. Can’t fly too close, if it’s windy or you don’t know them well. You practice to fly in formation, after all. And even with jet engines, in some weather conditions you reschedule the cool stuff. And then there's the issue of noise. And yelling wastes air; you don't want to be out of breath hundreds of feet up.

But my people are still basically human. Humans want to talk to each other. In the gestalt of writing, the answer was obvious, they whistle. It won't replace talking, words are wonderfully expressive and complex, but there it is.

So, here I am collecting vocabulary in the windborns' whistle language.

And then I go to take a bath, soap up my hair, and duck my ears into the water to rinse off. From that point of view, it's stupidly obvious that sound carries differently through water. I guess the underwater people will have to have their own song-language, too.

Hmm...It might not be as limited as the whistle-language...how many different vowel sounds and consonant sounds are distinguishable under water? I guess I have to do some experiments during upcoming baths, and maybe find a partner to experiment in a swimming pool at the next con...now I'm glad I don't (yet) have a lakeborn viewpoint character.

What did I get myself into?


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 29th, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)
Time to listen to whale song.
Aug. 29th, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)
I was thinking of whalesong, though these would be human songs. (-:
Aug. 29th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC)
Or dolphin songs. :)
Aug. 29th, 2009 09:49 am (UTC)

I wonder if the Ancients--or the Gods--put dolphins and whales on this world, as well as adapted humans? I know they put parrots here/there. (I was just writing; means my consciousness is more in Spiny Cove than Milwaukee, for a while, anyway.)
Aug. 29th, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)
- Apart from the African cases where a whistle (the tool) is used,
communication consists of whistled realizations of the local
- Pitch variation are produced by the tongue, with its tip pressed
against the teeth, and with the lips immobilized in a rounded or
spread position (use of fingers is optional)
- Each phoneme has a whistled equivalent. Given the loss of jaw and
lip movement by comparison with ordinary speech, phonetic
distinctions are harder to produce. Hence a strong reliance on
repetition and context, and a preference for phonemically-simple
languages and for the communication of short, simple, routine
* Vowel aperture is replaced by a set of more or less stable
pitch ranges (only relative - not absolute - Fo matters). In
general, vowels are not clearly distinguished.
* Consonants are produced by pitch transitions between vowels.
Transition length and height, plus the presence/absence of
occlusion, are used for differentiation purposes. Labial stops are
replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.
- Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
- Intonation exists, but conflicts with segmental pitch changes.
Hence, for instance, a preference for lexical over tonal questions."

Sound travels further underwater, I should imagine the same kind of whistle language would work very well, maybe with a shift of a few octaves. They might even understand each other, water born might be able to put on a special tone of voice so that air born could understand, in the same way that captive dolphins learn to pitch vocalisations within the hearing range of their trainers.

As they may often be conversing beyond sight range each conversation would start with a personal identifier whistle
Aug. 29th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
This is a whole whistled tourist information speech,
It reminded me of The Clangers
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
ooh, ooh, cool reference material! Thank you!

I'll have to think about vocal range (and hearing range) for the lakeborns and seaborns. Good thought. And since using fingers isn't an option while flying, perhaps the windborns' mouths are better-shaped for whistling? Or maybe not--I'll have to think about their origins. It would be useful, but isn't necessarily something that was "in the original plan", so to speak.

The "local language" in an area is the same, with some dialect shifts, for everyone. Having a significant portion of the populace born to people of different form is a stabilizing force on the language. Sturgeon has an unusually low instance of otherform townspeople and otherform babies. It is universally true that kids are generally fostered with, and as adults choose to marry, others of their form. They also tend to settle in towns where their own form is prevalent. Some of this is just the comfort of living where your body-type works well.

So I am imagining a whistle-language that does not merely mimic phonemes. There's also the tendency of humans to form jargon to take into account. (Oh, there's got to be a whole specialized subset just to talk about flying technique...jot down notes.)

Thanks very much for the references! Good food for thought! :-D
Aug. 29th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
Whistle-languages for humans aren't that limited. (A couple of them exist; I read about them in a random linguistics book Wednesday.) People can carry on quite complex business negotiations in them. As for the windborn, they're supplementary languages -- people whistle conversations while they're working on adjacent mountaintops, but they speak them in person. Whistle-speech is slow, though.

The windfolk could probably do better (as could humans) if they worked on it some. And if their designer thought about this in advance, they might have enhanced whistling features, like a syrinx or something.

Ask a dolphin or whale about distinguishable sounds underwater. Or, ask a cetacean researcher. I'd be shocked if the answer were fewer than the 44 sounds of English.
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
Hard to ask the dolphin or whale directly! Though human mouths are far more agile than dolphin or whale mouths, so I'm not worried about the number of sounds. But being vocalizations, I'll want to know which sounds just won't work before I write them into the stories!

Good point about whistle languages being slow. Another reason to use the lingua franca as the primary language, when feasible.
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:33 pm (UTC)
Well, maybe ask cetacean ethologists instead, if you must...
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)
Ah, my dragon friend, I don't have your connections!
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
Oh, you actually do. I don't know any personally, but I'd bet that a popular science talking-to-dolphins book would tell you a great deal.
Aug. 29th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
(-: I have good relations with books!
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
Drums are good for above water. The heads get soft underwater... BUT you could include things like "thumps" (similar to frogs), "pops"(muscle/joint sounds) and "clicks" from teeth under water for emphisys, formalities, shorthand and other things.
Aug. 29th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
I wonder if one could make something that would act like a drum under water with natural materials? Hard with natural materials. Also hard, though, is the quick percussive slap that elicits good sound from a drum head. Water resists more than air.

Though I do already have lakeborns, when out of water, slapping the top of the water rhythmically to send messages to those under the water. I think that's even in one of the already-posted chapters.

Other noises--hmm...one can click the tongue in a closed mouth. Don't know how well that would carry to someone else, though, under water.
Aug. 29th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
Slowing it down would definitely help one to follow different threads. Harmony and dissonance would definitely be noticeable.

As to omens, portents, and reading entrails, while they are related to language in a way, so are Tarot cards. That brings in other elements, other questions. Can seers be fireborn, or is it a different talent? And would anyone trust a non-fireborn who claimed to be a seer? After all, a fireborn can demonstrate their magic; a seer normally gives you only riddles. That's a whole different set of questions!
Aug. 29th, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
*thinking out loud* Hmmm, clicks or chirps for underwater? Kind of like the dolphin's sonar? I know that would limit alphabet but what if instead of individual sounds making up a word, certain types of clicks/chirps/? would mean the whole word? Or incorporate a variety of whistles, clicks and chirps??
Aug. 30th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
Lots of possibilities to choose from. :-)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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